Otto Dix was among several young German artists who volunteered for war in 1914, and returned a satirical realist. His stark Neue Sachlichkeit rhythms accord with the streamlined modernist architecture of Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion, which showcases to fine effect the rare loan from the British Museum of 19 works from his great print cycle “Der Krieg”. Created 10 years after Dix arrived at the front as a machine-gunner, this was modelled on Goya’s “Disasters of War” series but is psychologically more ambivalent.
In intense graphic close-ups, with bold intaglio lines creating maximum expressive impact, and long nightmarish sequences unfolding like a horror film, Dix brilliantly develops an aesthetic both grittily naturalistic and hallucinatory in tone. “Skin Graft” features a ghoulish, grossly disfigured face. A soldier eats alongside a human skeleton trapped in frozen mud in “Mealtime in the Trenches”. The layers of a bombed building are stripped back to reveal the dead within in “House Destroyed by Aerial Bombs”. Exploiting the corrosive nature of the etching and aquatint medium, in which acid etches a metal printing plate, Dix dramatises the atmosphere of physical and moral decay: decomposing bodies, shelled soldiers, surreally empty landscapes.
Yet it is too simple to read “Der Krieg” as only cautionary in intent. The critic Ernst Kállai wondered in the 1920s whether Dix’s brutal depictions “constituted a rejection or a cult” of war, and the artist himself admitted that he was caught between horror and fascination: he volunteered, he said, because “I had to, had to experience how someone beside me suddenly falls over and is dead and the bullet has hit him squarely. I had to experience that quite directly. I wanted it. I’m, therefore, not a pacifist at all – or am I? Perhaps I was an inquisitive person . . . I’m such a realist, that I have to see everything with my own eyes in order to confirm that it’s like that. I have to experience all the ghastly bottomless depths of life for myself”.
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